October 23, 2020

Iran’s expanding tool kit for internal suppression

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

Iranian officials are increasingly willing to disrupt domestic telecommunications to counter or preempt protests. The regime disrupted internet service in Tehran on October 8 in response to peaceful demonstrations mourning the death of a popular Iranian dissident singer. The regime seeks to replace some internet services with its national intranet and will quickly block mobile networks again during future unrest.

Iranian officials have previously reserved disrupting telecommunications for more violent and widespread protests. The Information and Communications Technology Ministry blocked the internet across Iran for over a week in November 2019 to help security services quash nationwide gasoline riots. Regime forces killed at least 1,500 Iranians.

The regime has since lowered its threshold for blocking internet and mobile services. Iranian officials have restricted networks at least three times since November in addition to the recent disruptions in Tehran. The regime feared unrest after the end of the 40-day mourning period for those killed in November 2019 and briefly blocked mobile services on December 25 in anticipation. Tehran again disrupted telecommunications in March as COVID-19 spread in Iran and in July when small-scale protests began in some cities.

The regime is prioritizing building a domestic intranet to reduce public reliance on foreign internet services. The Supreme Cyberspace Council *approved a plan to complete the network in September after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei *criticized current progress in August. The intranet would allow the regime to monitor and censor communications without hindering most network functionality. Iranian officials also want to minimize the discontent and costs incurred by blocking the internet in the future.

The regime’s rising willingness to block internet and mobile services will facilitate brutal crackdowns against future anti-regime unrest. The regime recognizes the high likelihood of future protests and is adopting increasingly authoritarian measures to secure itself. Iranian officials are not only expanding their control over the domestic information space but also preparing their security forces for serious and sustained crackdowns against demonstrators.